The most persistent internal barrier between me and a mental state of confidence has been uncertainty. Any scientist worth their mettle will tell you that uncertainty is a fact of life, and you have to get comfortable with it. I know this. Nevertheless, I am plagued by periods of uncertainty so severe that it crosses the line into existential angst.
This is fed by the “special snowflake” syndrome so common in my generation. Unreasonable thoughts float around in my mind, serving as justification for the terror and uncertainty: my project is uniquely difficult and therefore harder than anyone else’s; nobody understands my work therefore I am likely to fail. I know these thoughts to be ridiculous. Putting them in writing makes it even more obvious. But there is a grain of truth in them that makes them insidious, and difficult to abolish.
Yes, my work is uniquely hard. So is everybody’s. Doing a PhD is hard, and one’s work must be unique by definition. No, my work is not widely understood. There isn’t an established benchmark that I will be evaluated against, and I need to be creative and dogged in explaining it until it is understood. This is a problem shared by most people doing interdisciplinary work. Yes, it is harder in a methodological sense, and it’s harder to find an understanding audience. But I don’t have to rely on the success of experiments, I don’t have to cross my fingers that a protein will crystallise so I can carry on with the rest of my research, or wait for months for tissue samples from a hospital, like some of my peers. We all face difficulties.